“When we perform, we are practising”. This perhaps startling comment was made by the lead singer of a student band at the University of Liverpool, which points towards a gradual revolution in musical learning in higher education institutions which has taken place over the last 25 years. This has required academics to examine models for learning, such as the formal-informal learning continuum posited by Folkestad (2006). This calls for an understanding of musical maturation in a social context, underpinned by theories of situated learning posited by Lave & Wenger (1991).  Other new models of learning have been suggested by Welch (2008) or Smith’s (2013) Snowball model of learning, developed through working with professional drummers.

Research Question and Research Methods

For this paper, I pose the following research question:

How does the musical maturation of popular musicians relate to established theories of musical learning, both informal and formal?

Data for this project have been gathered from the reflective essays written by 32 undergraduate students on the popular music performance course, enhanced by 15 background questionnaires and individual semi-structured interviews.

I adopt an ethnographic approach to this research following Barton, (2014), recognising that the development of popular musicians takes place in a social context and consider what students report through the lens of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (Smith, 2004).


I discuss the changing attitudes of popular musicians, who start their courses determined to fight the institution and challenge their peers, but gradually recognise that musical learning requires a deliberate effort. For many, it rehearsing and performing in a band that spurs them on to individual practice, as they prepare for annual university assessments. For others, who are already active as session musicians, or are playing in bands with commercial contracts, the data suggest a more mature approach towards practice. Post-graduation interviews suggest that reflective practice has, in part, a life-long effect on musical maturation.

Conclusions and areas for further research

The current study focuses on a single cohort of musicians who were admitted to the university in 2012 and graduated in 2015. Further longitudinal study would be desirable to compare the musical journeys of multiple cohorts to understand whether their musical maturation is consistent, both as students and during their subsequent careers.


Barton, G. (2014). Ethnography and music education in K. Hartwig (Ed), Research Methods in Music Education. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Folkestad, G. (2006) Formal and informal learning situations or practices vs. formal and informal ways of learning British Journal of Music Education 23 (2) 135-145.

Lave, J & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation New York: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, G D. (2013) I drum, therefore I am Farnham: Ashgate.

Smith, J. A. (2004). Reflecting on the development of interpretative phenomenological analysis and its contribution to qualitative research in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1 (1), pp. 39–54.

Welch, G.F. et al (2008) Investigating Musical Performance [IMP]: Comparative Studies in Advanced Musical Learning Economic and Social Research Council Ref. RES-139-25-0101, [accessed online 10.5.2012]


Dr Monica Esslin-Peard is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Music, University of Liverpool and divides her time between academic research and teaching in secondary education in London. Her research interests include reflective practice and musical learning of classical and popular musicians, reflective practice with inter-cultural groups and reflective practice and pedagogy. She has published seven peer-reviewed papers/chapters, including a paper in the first volume of the Journal of Popular Music Education (2017) and is in demand as a reviewer for academic publications in the fields of classical and popular music, jazz and reflective practice. Monica is a frequent presenter at UK and international conferences. She plays cello regularly for orchestras and opera companies in the UK and is in demand as a coach and director of youth choirs may be found in the classroom playing electric bass, drums and keys.


  1. Hey Monica,

    How you doing? Interesting to see an expanded version of your research. I was wondering if you use other subject
    areas as a centre of reflective practice i.e other arts, philosophy, politics, psychology, environmental and science for example.

    See you soon


  2. Hi Monica,

    I really enjoyed this paper! I did my undergrad at a classically-focused conservatoire, and I kept thinking how useful the reflective practice diary would have been for me at that stage in my life. (I was admittedly not very dedicated about practicing, I think partly because I lacked the focus that this provides.)

    As you’re still tracking the careers of that cohort, I’m curious: do you know how the former students speak about the practice diary today? Do they seem to have taken some of those practices, or the discipline it provided, forward into their professional music careers?

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